It's odd to realize the extent to which we lonely, individualistic Americans are connected in a digital, if not a literal, sense; whether or not we want to be, we are constantly inundated with information from and about other people. Even without owning a television or a radio or subscribing to a newspaper, a person living in most parts of the US can't help but be informed of major national and world events (although whether we listen to what is being reported or understand it in a broader context is a different story). Information is everywhere – on the radio or TV or computer monitor at work, in the restaurant, the bar, the doctor's office waiting room, the airport lounge, the bus, and so forth.
Liberia is, for the most part, cut off from that sea of information. There are several national newspapers here, but they are of laughably poor quality and rarely make it to the cities and villages outside the capital (the only ones I have seen in my town have been several months outdated). And while there are quite a few satellite televisions in my town (which is, I should emphasize again, the county capital and thus one of the largest in the region), I have never seen them tuned to anything other than soccer or African soap operas. I do hear people listening to BBC Africa reports in the morning, but relatively few people own radios, and poorer-quality radios (such as my own) cannot pick up the station. So along with the majority of the population of Liberia, I am pretty well disconnected from the rest of the world, with the exception of the few times a week that I plug my brain back into the internet or phone my family to actively seek out what is happening in my home country and abroad.
The funny thing is, I don't really miss the constant connectivity, and I don't feel particularly disconnected. The massive flood of “information” that we are exposed to in the US is, I can't help but feel, mostly bullshit. News stories are marketed fast-food style to a population that expects our media, like our meals, in attractively packaged, bite-sized form, but devoid of any substantive value. When I get online, I usually log into Google Reader and quickly scan through the most recent of the thousands and thousands of media headlines from the New York Times, Newsweek, Time Magazine, my hometown's local newspaper, Scientific American, Livescience.com, the BBC, AllAfrica.com, the Associated Press, CNN, NBC, and any number of other random news outlets that I've subscribed to at some point or another. Out of those thousands of headlines, there are usually about 5 articles that are actually worth reading . . . and then only about the first 2 sentences of those generally have anything of substance to say.
This may all sound self-evident to you (who are probably a little bit faster on the uptake than I), but the sheer ridiculousness of the tiny substance-to-information ratio – even from well-established and -respected media organizations – did not strike me until my forcible disconnection from US society and the web.
The other (probably obvious) thing about the Western media that did not really sink into my brain until I spent a significant amount of time away from it this: it is incredibly biased. I think that because I know we live in an open society, a society ostensibly built upon the values of open discourse and free speech, I unconsciously assumed that our media is relatively accurate (as long as one avoids the one-sided sources, the Fox News and ilk). I kind of figured that, although there was a lot of unnecessary crap and “fluff” out there, the “real” news that was reported – particularly from sources such as the BBC and the New York Times – was relevant and reasonably accurate. But what is “relevant” to our population is not necessarily what is relevant to the rest of the world, and what is “accurate” is often totally one-sided, if not completely wrong.
There is, of course, a lot going on in the world, and we are a very busy nation. So it's not too difficult to understand why we like our reports on international events to be pre-digested, with the “good guys” and the “bad guys” clearly identified (since, after all, it's not like we have time to fully understand every nuance of every occurrence in the world; give us the gist of things and forget the rest). In Kenya, immediately following the December 2007 elections but prior to my evacuation back to the US, it surprised me to hear the ways in which the widespread tribal violence was being reported in the States. One friend informed me of a “human interest” special he saw on TV portraying one of the tribes, the Kikuyus, as victims (which they were, in the sense that British colonialism really fucked them over) . . . but which failed to emphasize that the incumbent president of Kenya, whose rigging of the elections provoked the outbreak of violence, was a Kikuyu and that the Kikuyus were in modern times regarded by other ethnic groups as one of the most powerful tribes in the country. (This is not to say that the Kikuyus were to “blame” for the post-election violence – since as far as I could tell they were not any more or less culpable than any of the other tribes that participated – but only to illustrate the fallacy of sacrificing accuracy and completeness to create interest).
Other reports I read suggested that the violence in Kenya might be the first signal of a start to another Rwanda – an inappropriate parallel, given the scale of the events, the number of tribes in Kenya, and the complexity of Kenyan tribal interactions (no single tribe represents more than around 30% of the population in Kenya). In the interest of making the Kenya conflict “marketable” to Americans, the media managed to skew it in a way that obscured its true significance – as a tragic manifestation of long-standing and complex (though previously mostly dormant) ethnic frictions, and a reminder that, in a population that is struggling with massive poverty and eking out a frustrating existence, any spark can provoke a flare-up of senseless violence.
Still, at least the Kenya violence was reported. When I get online, I usually do a quick search for articles on Liberia, to see what the rest of the world thinks is going on here. For the most part, this does nothing but reinforce just how unimportant this country is to the West; if Liberia is disconnected from the international news scene, then the international news scene is equally as unconcerned with Liberia. Aside from a few articles on the trial of Charles Taylor, there is rarely anything at all about Liberia. Events that I would expect to merit at least a minimal amount of coverage – online if not actually in print – receive nothing or next to nothing. For example, a few weeks ago, an outbreak of religious or tribal violence in the northwestern Liberian city of Voinjama resulted in the death of at least one Liberian (and the evacuation of several Peace Corps volunteers). This event resulted in one lonely newspaper article in AllAfrica.com, two paragraphs long, which said only that UN peacekeepers were being deployed to the region. Strange to realize just how much there is going on in the world that we as Americans will never know about, despite the paradoxically overwhelming flood of information we receive on a daily basis.